Leading the way

Although the magic finally came to a dramatic close after a hard-fought loss to USC deep in the NCAA finals, a St. John’s volleyball juggernaut has arrived.

The 2007 season showcased a Red Storm team on a season-long war-path. The club’s record-shattering body of work featured plenty of W’s on the schedule, 33 to be exact – which happens to be the most wins in the program’s 14-year history. The Storm women finished off its more successful season program history in front of ESPN cameras in Milwaukee, capturing its second consecutive Big East Championship with a three-game sweep over rival Louisville.

Aside from its success on the volleyball court all year, the Storm added some hardware to the trophy case. Head coach Joanne Persico-Smith was listed as an Honorable Mention for Collegiate Volleyball Update’s “Coach of the Year” title. The love didn’t stop there however, as her veteran team leaders also captured some national headlines.

Senior Hui Ping Huang, arguably the best volleyball player in the history of St. John’s volleyball, became the first Red Storm representative ever to earn All-America honors. She set the St. John’s mark for single-season hitting percentage with a .477 clip, good for tops in the Big East.

“Staff ace” Wioleta Leszczynska brought some more accolades to the collection, as her offensive performances made her the Big East Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Playing inspired, crunch-time volleyball all year, the high-pressure Big East Championship environment was just business as usual for Leszczynska. Refusing to rest on just those laurels, she was also mentioned for Collegiate Volleyball Update’s “National Setter of the Year” honors.

“It feels wonderful,” said Leszczynska on reaching the pinnacle of the Big East conference. “Overall it was a great season. It was a challenge but we managed achieving our goal.”

The numbers look like the team barely broke a sweat, as the Storm finished up the season with only four losses and a eyebrow-raising .892 winning percentage.

When asked about any other adversity the team had to face despite all the victories, Leszczynska pointed out the team’s tough road match-ups against South Florida and, of course, Louisville. She also mentioned the heroics of stud teammate Hui Ping Huang. “We had a couple injuries here and there. [Huang]’s knees were hurting and she had to play to help the team.”

Head coach Joanne Persico-Smith had something to say about establishing St. John’s as a volleyball powerhouse.

“It is a tremendous feeling to be among the top volleyball schools in the nation,” said Persico-Smith. “I could not have done it without the support of the school, my staff, my family and friends and especially all the players who decided to take a chance and play for a young coach many years ago.”

Persico-Smith realized this year was going to be special following the late summer’s opening weekend in SoCal at the Trojan Invitational Tournament. After losing to USC for the first time in the second game of the year, the team started out 1-1. That would be the closest they would be to a mediocre club until the very end. Instead of hitting the panic button, Persico-Smith took a collected approach to the loss, and was proud of the way the women competed.
“We finished up losing to USC the next day of the tourney, but we were the only team to take them to four very close games. We realized that if we keep working on getting better, and staying strong for the entire match, we could really compete again to defend our Big East Championship and make a nice run in the NCAA tournament.”

Her senior leadership provided the spark for the team’s dominance, and losing three electrifying playmakers to graduation could pose a threat to the team’s Big East rendition of the 1998-2000 Yankees.

Persico-Smith however, still doesn’t have any immediate plans to relinquish the conference title.

“Of course I’m concerned about losing three starters, two of which are all Americans, and one happens to be Big East player of the year! It will be very challenging for us to three-peat a Big East Championship and stay ranked in the top ten. Then again, we wouldn’t want it any other way.”